By Carolyn Thompson
BUFFALO, N.Y. — Conrad Bassett-Bouchard started his championship Scrabble game Wednesday with the word “zilch” and finished with the opposite — the $10,000 prize and the title of national Scrabble champion.
The 24-year-old player, from Portland, Oregon, beat 29-year-old Jason Li, of Montreal, in the final round of the five-day 25th National Scrabble Championships played at the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center.
Bassett-Bouchard, the tournament’s second seed, said he knew luck was with him when he drew a wild-card blank tile and an “s’’ on his first seven-tile rack. He led for most of the match, winning by a score of 477-350.
Li, the 18th seed, said, “I was playing catch-up right to the end.”
Li had the letters to play an obscure but potentially high-scoring word but didn’t see it, creating a buzz among experienced onlookers.
“He’s going to be kicking himself for missing ‘gramarye,’” tournament director John Chew said after the play.
Chew, co-president of the North American Scrabble Players Association, the event’s sponsor, called Li’s presence in the final round the biggest surprise in the tournament, which saw an emerging group of younger players edge out the old guard.
Six of the top 10 finishers are in their 20s, and one, Mack Meller, from Bedford, is 14.
Tournament favorite and five-time champion Nigel Richards, 47, described by one competitor as the Michael Jordan of the game, finished a surprising 16th.
“All these younger players are avid online players,” said Will Anderson, 29, trying to explain the success of the tournament’s 20-somethings at an old-fashioned board game.
“These guys have all played thousands of games on the Internet to hone their skills and meet each other before they’ve ever met in person,” said Anderson, of Croton-on-Hudson, who finished fifth in Buffalo after placing third last year.
The final game saw Bassett-Bouchard and Li at a white-linen-draped table while a tournament representative live-tweeted their every move.
Although it was just one of dozens of games taking place inside the cavernous meeting room, the muffled clattering of tiles as players shook and drew from cloth drawstring bags was virtually the only sound.
The winning board contained the words florigen, trooz, venerate, contuse and barf.
Bassett-Bouchard said his win seemed imminent when Li played “jug,” giving him room on the board to spell “docents” and pull further ahead.
“From that point on,” he said, “it was going to be pretty hard for me to lose.”
The tournament began days after the announcement that 5,000 new words had been added to “The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary,” but players won’t be able to use those entries — including much-anticipated two-letter words da, gi and po, along with selfie, hashtag and bromance — until after this year’s championship.
The 25th National Scrabble Championships drew 525 players from 11 countries.